The Color of Life

I recently reviewed Cara Meredith’s new book, The Color of Life, for The Englewood Review of Books.

On October 1, 1962, James Meredith enrolled in the University of Mississippi for his final year of college. What should have been a straightforward process involving applications and recommendations was anything but easy. Riots broke out on campus two nights before the arrival of the 29-year-old incoming senior. The possibility of the first African American student at Ole Miss was significant enough to draw concerted opposition from the governor of Mississippi and intervention by Robert Kennedy, then the U.S. Attorney General. Reflecting later, Meredith, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, remembered his time at the university as a war, one which he won by forcing the federal government to intervene to defend his civil rights. This was a war against white supremacy and Meredith was willing to lead the charge, no matter how violent the response.

It is impossible not to think about Meredith regularly while reading The Color of Life and not only because the author regularly weaves his story through her narrative. Cara Meredith is the daughter-in-law of the civil rights icon, married to his son James. Also, she is white.

Read the rest of the review at Englewood.

Children, Discipleship, and the Painful Way of Jesus

Is it a lost cause?This morning I wrapped up a draft chapter about children’s ministry for the book on discipleship and race I’m working on. I began my ministry serving children, but that’s been quite a few years ago so it was good to spend a couple of weeks reading and thinking deeply about the church’s kids. There were a number of books and articles that were helpful to me – Jennifer Harvey’s Raising White Kids is a treasure and Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom and David Bjorlin have written a great book about incorporating children in worship – but a theme in Marva Dawn’s Is It a Lost Cause? is probably what will stick with me the most.

Dawn writes repeatedly about the ways American culture forms us to avoid pain. She says that “one of the glaring characteristics of contemporary U.S. culture is the insistence that life be comfortable, easy, entirely without any kind of suffering.” Though she doesn’t make this connection, it seems to me that this tendency is especially pronounced within white churches whose experiences of racial privilege become conflated with our discipleship to Jesus.

The expectation that we must avoid pain is, as Dawn points out, totally incompatible with Jesus’ own experience. “Jesus himself suffered in every way imaginable – not only the pain and shame of the cross, but also homelessness, foreign oppression, the need to escape terror and live as a refugee. He lived as one who had no place to lay his head.” And then, of course, there was the crucifixion.

What Dawn is pointing out – and what I hope to contextualize to the goal of discipling white children away from racism – is how our discipleship to Jesus will inevitably lead us through pain. We must invite our children and their parents to come to see their pain – to really see it – as an opportunity to meet the crucified Savior more intimately and to then follow him more closely on the way to redemption.

For White Christians Who Keep Supporting the President Despite Most Other Christians Asking Them to Reconsider

It’s election time again and during the two years since the last one I’ve thought about you a lot. Your enthusiastic support for the president sent a shiver through the American church which many of us are still trying to make sense of.

It’s not that we’re surprised that so many white people voted for the president. As we listened to his dehumanizing rhetoric about immigrants, heard his plans to ban people from Muslim-majority countries, and remembered his racist language and actions towards African Americans, it was clear that a segment of white America would be attracted to this man. No, what was – and remains – so disturbing was your support. It seems that every poll since the last election shows white Christians among the president’s most fervent defenders.

Here’s the thing: I’m not interested in telling you how to vote. The amount of variables in any local election are significant and require great discernment from any Christian voter. What is interesting to me is your ongoing ignorance of why so many other Christians – Christians whose racial identities are different from yours but whose faith has been placed in the same God – are disturbed and even frightened by how you continue to support this president.

Does this distinction makes sense to you? It’s not your preferred political party that is the issue. It’s your disinterest toward your family in Christ that troubles so many of us. Over the past two years I’ve listened as you have described your attraction to this president. Yet not once have I seen the cares and concerns expressed by Christians of color be met in any way other than dismissively or defensively. I’m still waiting for the Trump-supporting white Christian who will show genuine interest and concern for those people of color who she is related to in Christ, and whose lives have been made less safe by this president.

I’ve heard some of you, in response to what I’ve said so far, complain that I’m picking on white Christians. Given the nature of cultural differences, you’ve told me, the ignorance across racial differences goes both ways in our churches. But this is plainly wrong. Our family members in Christ who exist outside the boundaries of racial whiteness don’t have the privilege of remaining ignorant about us white people. It might surprise you to know that many, many Christians of color can describe precisely – even sympathetically – why you voted for this president. That they know more about us than we do about them is a simple function of a society which contains a racial majority.

But what is normal within our racialized society should be alien to our churches. We who have been grafted into the family of God have no rationale for maintaining our ignorance about our fellow family members. When, for example, black Christians describe the fears raised when the president wants innocent black men sentenced to death, it must be the response of the entire church to attend closely to these fears, to make them our own. Or when the president releases a patently racist ad directed, once again, at Latino/a immigrants, all of our churches must feel the attack and sit with one another in solidarity and lament. Our churches, as witness-bearers to our reconciling Savior, are meant to stand together in response to every injustice that affects any of us.

I’ve spent the last couple of years looking for any example of this sort of solidarity without any luck. So what would you have us do? We, your fellow Christians, who are asking not for your vote but for your compassion?

It’s an honest question. As best I can tell, you would prefer to support an administration that actively harms members of the Body of Christ without believing those members when they describe the harm they’ve experienced. To say it slightly differently: You have made yourselves the authority about the lived realities of Christians of color in order to disregard their own descriptions of their realities.

I once heard a Native American Christian describe his many years of being ignored and disbelieved by white Christians. Despite his best, thoughtful attempts, the majority of white Christians simply wouldn’t take seriously his painful experience of the country. He finally came to see white Christians as the weaker sibling described by Paul in his letters to the Romans and Corinthians. He decided he had to change his expectations about them, imagining white Christians as immature children rather than emotionally mature and compassionate adults.

I realize how that characterization stings. I feel it too. But you’ll understand, I hope, how many of us are grasping at explanations for why you remain content in your detachment and disinterest from the rest of your Christian family.

What do I want for you? I’ve asked myself this a lot over these two years. I’m still working it out, but here’s what I’ve got for now: I want my fellow white Christians to take our allegiance to the Kingdom of God more seriously than our American citizenship. Which is to say, I want white Christians to love and believe the rest of our Christian family.

It doesn’t seem too much to ask.

Photo credit: Jake Guild.

“And for the first time I felt my nakedness.”

For several years I lived in what seems to me now to have been a very general way. My major aim was to keep writing, and I had done so by taking advantage of random opportunities, traveling here and there, living a year or two in one place and a year or two in another. And then in the spring of 1964 I turned back on the direction I had been going. I returned to Kentucky, and within a year bought and moved onto a little farm in my native part of the state.

That return made me finally an exile from the ornamental Europeanism that still passes for culture with most Americans. What I had done caused my mind to be thrown back forcibly upon its sources: my home countryside, my own people and history. And for the first time I felt my nakedness. I realized that the culture I needed was not to be be found by visiting museums and libraries and auditoriums. It occurred to me that there was another measure for my life than the amount or event the quality of the writing I did; a man, I thought, must be judged by how willingly and meaningfully he can be present where he is, by how fully he can make himself at home in his part of the world. I began to want desperately to learn to belong to my place. The test, it seemed to me, would be how content I could become to remain in it, how independent I could be, there, of other places.

– Wendell Berry, The Hidden Wound.

Here Berry is making the important connection between race and place. In a book about his own coming to terms with racism and its psychological and spiritual impact on all Americans, but especially white Americans, Berry finds that his own healing depends on his willingness to submit to place, to stop living, as he describes elsewhere, as “urban nomads.” The reasons for this connection are many and Berry gets at some of these, mostly related to culture and economics, but he misses what I consider to be most fundamental, that race was created as a means to sever people from place. As Willie Jennings has pointed out, by granting the pseudo-scientific construction of race the power to define bodies, European colonialists (and their descendants) detached themselves and those they sought to exploit from God’s creation. No longer was the earth itself – with its cultures and histories – the lens through which peoples were encountered and understood (or understood themselves), now the warped veneer of race could be conveniently applied to those whose labor and bodies were desirable for profit.

Deciding to reject “ornamental Europeanism” for a local life submitted to place did not immediately lead to wholeness for Berry, but it did expose his racial nakedness and from that honest place he began his journey toward a more humane life.

Transgressing Whiteness

33897495274_9df3399f90_kAlmost daily I hear someone claim that the president has crossed a new line, that surely now his white Christian supporters will abandon him, or at least acknowledge (some of) his faults. It happened again yesterday after his press conference with Russia’s president. But this hoped-for line will never be crossed.

This president will never transgress the ideology most sacred to Trump’s white Christian supporters, their whiteness itself. We’ve watched him violate most of what politically-active white Christians have traditionally said is sacred about the USA: respect for the military, forms of sexual morality, even basic Christian doctrine. The president has repeatedly flaunted all of these and his supporters remain.

But this president will never transgress whiteness so he won’t lose the support of those Christians whose identity, it turns out, is primarily racial rather than ecclesial. Racist dog whistles, nostalgia for European culture, sympathy with white nationalists, violent responses to Latino/a migrants, slandering black nations… these aren’t embarrassments for Trump-ian Christians but assurances to their most deeply-held beliefs and fears. The sacred line that would need to be violated in order to lose these Christians is too deeply embedded within the president himself for him to ever cross. He shares this with his supporters… so he will never, ever lose them.

(I’m aware how deeply pessimistic, even cynical, this sounds. But the more precise we can be about the disease within much of white Christianity, the better we can address the sickness at its source. The treatment, I’m convinced, is a matter of discipleship, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Photo credit: Gray Salvation.

Opposed, Cautious, and Irrelevant

15 or so years ago, while enrolled at a Christian graduate school, I went to an evening seminar in which the speaker, a well-known visiting professor from a prestigious university, was to present on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s theology. The turn-out from the largely white campus was small, especially given the topic and professor’s reputation, but what I most remember was how much of the presentation was dedicated to making the case for King’s Christianity. It was as though the professor knew that, before discussing King’s theology, he had to convince his mostly white, Christian audience that the most revered preacher America has ever produced was… a Christian.

I’ve thought a lot about that strange moment over the years and again on this 50th anniversary of King’s assassination. I’ve learned so much from him in the past 20 years, about theology, preaching, organizing, prayer, and more. But what I’ve most learned – what that 15-year-old memory reminds me of – is how white people, including Christians, generally respond to movements for racial justice.

I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise; most of what I’ve learned about white people, about myself, has been from black people. Ida B. Wells taught me about the violence that cannot be disentangled from whiteness. James Baldwin showed me the blinding nature of whiteness. Frederick Douglass helped me disentangle the slaveholding religion of white Christianity from the peaceable religion of Christ. Numerous mentors and friends have revealed to me with increasing clarity the meaning of whiteness and my mindless benefitting from or willful opposition to it. Black people, for whom understanding whiteness is of deadly concern, have always known more about white people than we have about ourselves. And King, in a myriad of ways, has shown me the defensive and violent response of most white people to expressions of racial justice. He most famously discussed this in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

In spite of my shattered dreams, I came to Birmingham with the hope that the white religious leadership of this community would see the justice of our cause and, with deep moral concern, would serve as the channel through which our just grievances could reach the power structure. I had hoped that each of you would understand. But again I have been disappointed.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.”

Wether debating King’s movement strategy, American loyalty, or Christian faith, white Christians were quick to find ways to discredit the movement for racial justice and thus ignore or oppose it. In this regard, as that college seminar revealed, very little has changed in the 50 years since King’s murder.

Occasionally I’m asked about how white people respond to things I write and say publicly about racial justice. The assumption, correct much of the time, is that the responses can be harsh. In fact, I think very little about these responses anymore. Mostly this is because I know how much more opposition my friends of color, particularly women, face when they speak for racial justice. Any flak I take is small in comparison. But the other reason I’m not surprised about these typical and troublesome responses is that King prepared me. He taught me to understand how unrepentant whiteness responds when the possibility of genuine racial justice surfaces.

Let me be more honest: King taught me to anticipate my own backlash to racial justice. His words and actions, and the violence they provoked, help me to see the violence within myself. Under his influence, I’ve come to doubt my initial responses to calls for racial equity and repair. The privilege and blindness that comes with my race make my emotions and experiences untrustworthy guides in the journey toward justice. King taught me to submit my instincts to the wisdom of those friends who exist outside of whiteness’s blinding lies.

King taught me to understand and anticipate the tepid caution, dangerous opposition, and utter irrelevancy of most white responses to racial justice. This backlash has exerted only a tiny price from me but this week we remember that for many others the cost has been deadly.

“Then white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate.”

Black congregants — as recounted by people in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Fort Worth and elsewhere — had already grown uneasy in recent years as they watched their white pastors fail to address police shootings of African-Americans. They heard prayers for Paris, for Brussels, for law enforcement; they heard that one should keep one’s eyes on the kingdom, that the church was colorblind, and that talk of racial injustice was divisive, not a matter of the gospel. There was still some hope that this stemmed from an obliviousness rather than some deeper disconnect.

Then white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump by a larger margin than they had voted for any presidential candidate. They cheered the outcome, reassuring uneasy fellow worshipers with talk of abortion and religious liberty, about how politics is the art of compromise rather than the ideal. Christians of color, even those who shared these policy preferences, looked at Mr. Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, his open hostility to N.F.L. players protesting police brutality and his earlier “birther” crusade against President Obama, claiming falsely he was not a United States citizen. In this political deal, many concluded, they were the compromised.

– “A Quiet Exodus: Why Blacks Are Leaving White Evangelical Churches” in The New York Times. I’m not sure we’ll ever know the extent of the negative impact this past election had on the lives of individual Christians. I’ve heard a lot of stories about disgruntled white progressive evangelicals who found themselves to be further out of step with the rest of their churches than they’d previously imagined. But this is the first story I’ve read about the particular spiritual damage inflicted by white churches on black Christians, people, it must be said, who genuinely wanted to find spiritual homes among white Christians.

As an aside, I spoke with the reporter, Campbell Robertson, months ago as he was working on this piece. He struck me then as a trustworthy narrator of this very particular experience of American Christianity and I think the article bears that out. It’s always refreshing to read good religious reporting.